The Jaffa Cake, Edinburgh
Polly Jean Harvey was spotted twice in Edinburgh last week; once in this typically astonishing concert, and once in Hal Hartley’s latest film, The Book of life, in which she plays Mary Magdalene. I haven’t seen the film, but it would seem the perfect role for Harvey, whose appeal is based on equal parts sexual glamour and Biblical intensity. Her acting has been described as wooden; thankfully, this is not the case with her on-stage performance. Had she sung ‘50ft Queenie’ at the site of the crucifixion, Jesus would have been the one staring in awe.
Three years since the last PJ Harvey album - the steamy, luxurious To Bring You My Love - the most distinctive female singer of the Nineties is back in another eye-popping disguise. The last time we saw her, she looked like a skeletal ghoul dressed in a lurid parody of glamour - curlers in her hair, spidery false eyelashes and lipstick like dried blood.
This time, her hair cascades down in the dark ringlets, except on her forehead, where it is cut in a severe, old-fashioned fringe; she is dressed in a scarlet blouse, a tight-fitting, knee-length black nylon skirt, and sensible black shoes. She now looks cuter, less witchy and anorexic, more like a virginal librarian letting her hair down at the Halloween party.
Is this a clue to how her new album, Is This Desire? (released at the end of September), will sound? Probably not. After all, her most stark and harrowing album, 1993’s Rid Of Me, was promoted by a tour in which Harvey dressed up in a leopard skin jacket and plastic sunglasses and cracked flirty jokes with the audience.
The 28 year old Dorset farm-girl, whose parents brought her up on Captain Beefheart and respect for cows, has always chosen the most unpredictable route during her strange, seven year career, which even now feels like it is only just beginning.
It is apt that she decided to do her first major interview for her forthcoming album with the low-circulation independent style magazine Dazed & Confused - because dazing and confusing people is precisely what PJ Harvey does best.
Nevertheless, on the basis of the few new songs she played last Tuesday, Is This Desire?, would seem to pick up where she left off with To Bring You My Love. On the title track and the first single, A Perfect Day Elise, Eric Drew Feldman’s bass lines glower with the same sticky menace while Harvey’s vocals, deeper and more fluid than ever, caress the choruses like beloved children about to be sacrificed. The same air of sinister sensuality hangs over everything: this is Polly as siren rather than Polly as harpy or banshee, which is often how she sounded on her first two albums, Dry and Rid Of Me.
The one truly volatile element in the aural mix is John Parish’s guitar, which flickers between sweetly plucked restraint and evil, atonal screeching in a manner reminiscent of the young Harvey’s voice.
The great surprise of this show is how many songs the band play from Dance Hall at Louse Point, her 1996 collaboration with Parish, which was largely dismissed at the time as a half-listenable curio, but which is clearly important to Harvey. The most melodic songs from that - ‘That Was My Veil’, ‘Rope Bridge Crossing’, ‘Civil War Correspondent’ - sound even better than they did on the album, but I have to say that the only moments when this gig ever looks like creaking or losing its intensity are during Parish’s little detours into white noise.
The most obvious comparison for Harvey’s current sound in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds during the mid-Eighties, when Blixa Bargeld’s angular, stabbing guitar still lent an aura of real danger to Cave’s breathy laments and homicidal confessions. Harvey and Cave are friends, of course, and both are chameleon auteurs. Like Hal Hartley’s films, their work is always unmistakably theirs, but both like to mess around with their
image and their angle of attack.
Right now, Harvey is at her most intimate, impressive and self-confident. Her performance seems untroubled by any of the doubts that caused her to have a nervous breakdown during the recording of Rid Of Me, yet it’s less dramatised and artificial than her stage work in 1995.
As the gig gathers its over-whelming momentum towards the end - ‘Missed’ is so heartfelt you half-expect her to start bleeding ; ‘Meet Ze Monsta’ is a tour de force of supercharged blues dynamics - the small, squashed together crowd roars its adoration, and Harvey starts to grin and then giggle. Next thing you know, she’ll be doing stand-up comedy...